My grandmother’s official cause of death was coronary, but it was really anxiety that killed her.
I remember when she came to visit us on the West Coast, for the Thanksgiving before she died. She kept complaining that she had heart burn. She’s talked to her doctor about it and they gave her some Maalox. She kept taking it and it didn’t help. The burning persisted. The doctor suggested that she have cardiac testing. A sensation similar to heartburn is common among women with potentially life-threatening heart disease, but is often mistaken for indigestion.
Every time they attempted the testing, my grandmother would have to drive to Boston, would arrive, would be readied for the testing – but her anxiety level was so high, that they couldn’t follow through with the testing. Her fears about the driving, and the testing got her so amped up that it was pointless to try to gauge what her heart would be doing under “normal” circumstances. They tried the testing several times.
I remember laying next to her, snuggled up in bed, thinking “what if I wake up and she’s dead”.
Not long after Christmas, they’d finally installed 911 in the town that she lived in. She called it just to test it out once, since she was an older lady who lived alone. She wanted to know what to do if something happened to her while she was by herself at her house. The practice paid off the following week – when she had a stronger sensation in her chest, and she didn’t feel good. She called 911 and the medics took her to the hospital.
She’d had a massive heart attack. Four of the blood vessels feeding oxygen and nutrients to her heart were more then 90% blocked, and probably had been compromised for years. They performed a quadruple bypass surgery.
It was after surgery that she died. She’d asked my aunt to bring a nurse in to help her with something. In the 20 seconds my aunt was gone, my grandmother died. They opened her up right there in her recovery bed but there was no saving her – because of the damage her heart muscle had sustained, the wall of her heart had given way. They couldn’t even sew it back together because the tissue was so damaged.
She died of a broken heart.
She died because her fears about what might happen, kept her from living in the present. She died because anxiety ruled her life.
She lived her life this way. I never really questioned my grandmother’s eccentricity in this department. Not much anyway. After all, our whole family is a stew of anxiety genes. It’s not like she was the only one who got worked up about almost everything. My grandmother was overly cautious, but my time with her was limited, so I didn’t see the point of antagonizing her. Plus, didn’t her caution mean that she loved us? She worried obsessively about our physical safety. And the situations that she didn’t worry about, my grandfather did. They always took good care of me.
The last summer that I went to visit her, I was 19 years old, a licensed driver with a clean driving record, and I didn’t even live at home anymore, but I was not allowed to drive – she did not want me killed in a motor vehicle accident on her watch. My mother said “ma, this girl drives around downtown Seattle and on the freeways all the time, she’ll be ok”. Nope. Not on Grammy’s watch. Not in Grammy’s car.
I know – or at least I feel – that we go when we go. It’s not up to us. It’s not something we can control. But if she’d been as obsessed about taking care of her health, that same way that she was obsessed with mine, or to the same degree that she was afraid of driving, and taking medical tests, I can’t help thinking we might have had more time with her.
Nobody can tell me that anxiety isn’t important – doesn’t matter – is a minor mental health issue. Anxiety kills people.